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Grammar: The Passive Voice (sentence construction)

What does it mean for a sentence to be in passive voice? Why even use the passive voice?

What is Active and Passive Voice?

Sentences in "Active" voice are sentences in which the subject performs the action; for example, "The man stole the chair". The subject, the man, performs the action, stole.

Sentences in "Passive" voice are sentences in which the noun in the subject does not perform the action; for example, "The chair was stolen by the man". The subject, the chair, did not perform the action, stole.

So, why should you use passive voice? 

Let's look at an example. Read the following news article. How many passive sentences can you find?

Blaze at Local Cinema
A fire broke out at the Odeon cinema in new Street last night. It was quickly brought under control by the staff and no one was seriously injured. The cinema was full of children and their parents, but it was evacuated quickly and without panic. However, ten people were taken to the hospital suffering from the effects of smoke.

The Odeon is owned by the Lucky Leisure Company. A spokesperson said, "Odeon cinemas are visited by thousands of people every week and we have never had a fire before. Our safety record is excellent.” However, staff said that the sprinklers did not work as expected when the fire started. The police are investigating and are holding a 19 year-old man for questioning.

Staff are now cleaning up after the fire. “We have cleared the inside of the cinema and will start the job of redecorating on the weekend,” said the spokesperson. “The cinema should open again on Monday.”

Complete the sentences by locating them in the news article. The first has been done for you.

It (the fire)___was quickly brought under control by the staff______________

...and no one_____________________________________________________

It (the cinema) ___________________________________________________

Ten people_______________________________________________________

The Odeon_______________________________________________________

Odeon cinemas____________________________________________________

What do all of the sentences above have in common?

Check answers

What do we know about the sentences?

“It was quickly brought under control by the staff.”

  1. Do we know who did the action?
  2. Which is more important here, the person who did the action or the action itself?

“Ten people were taken to the hospital.”

  1. Do we know who did the action?
  2. Can we make an educated guess at who did the action?

“It was evacuated quickly. “

  1. Do we know who did the action?


So, three reasons why we use the passive voice are…

  1. We don’t know who _____________
  2. The action is more important than ______________
  3. We can make an educated guess at _____________

Check answers

So, how do we form the passive voice?

The Odeon is owned by the Lucky Leisure Company.
  • Who owns The Odeon?
  • How do we rewrite the sentence to make the sentence in the active voice?

Active voice:

  • The Luck Leisure Company owns the Odeon.

Passive Voice:

  • The Odeon is owned by the Lucky Leisure Company.

What do you notice changes between the active voice and the passive voice?

Complete the rule using the words below.

  1. Verb ‘to be'*
  2. past participle*
  3. subject 
*the verb 'to be' includes all of its forms (e.g. is/are, was/were)
*past participle is the third form of a verb (e.g. take, took, taken)

We form the passive by making the object of the active voice the ______________, followed by the correct form of ____________, plus the __________________.

Check answers

Final Remarks

With these rules in mind, why do you think people say to use mostly active sentences in creative writing (e.g. stories, poems, books, etc.)?

Why do you think news reports often use passive voice?

Why do you think scientific papers often use passive voice?

Where else would active voice be preferred over passive? Passive voice over active?

Can all sentences be made passive? What about "I have a car"? Can I say, "A car is had by me"? Learn more about passive voice by continuing on to Passive Voice advanced.


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